Analog Research Technologies (AR-T) Legato USB-S/PDIF Converter

Everyone has one of those moments, I think, when they just do something and almost immediately wonder WTF they were thinking. I wish I could say that this is unfamiliar to me, or at least, less unfamiliar. Oh well. I guess impulse control isn’t really one of my strong suits. Next time on the wheel, maybe that’ll be the lesson I’ll be here to learn.

In this latest bit of needless excess that is my life as a stereophile (this is opposed to an audiophile, who’s after great sound — I’m after that, yes, but I also have a fetish for nicely made gear), I purchased another USB to S/PDIF converter. The Analog Reseach Technologies (ART) Legato showed up on Friday, in the middle of lovely sleet shower, brought by those wonderful rain-sleet-or-snow guys at the USPS. Nothing like putting that to the test.

Anyway, I’m still not totally sure why I picked this up. I already have an (RCA-based) M2Tech HiFace that is connecting my loaner Berkeley Alpha to my G5, and doing a bang-up job of it at that. Truly. And the kicker is that the HiFace supports hi-res (like the Alpha) and the Legato is strictly redbook only.

I’ve been following the Legato for a while now, chatting periodically with Pat, reading his posts on this forum, and I guess I must have been very impressed with Gordon Rankin’s unequivocal recommendation of him. Witchery, all ’round.

The Legato, unlike the HiFace, is based on two things. One is that asynchronous USB code, licensed from Rankin’s Wavelength company. Like Ayre did with their truly wonderful QB-9 DAC, my personal top contender as a replacement DAC until I ran foul of the Alpha. Second is his hand-picked clock, a particular piece of kit that Pat claims is the best available. Together, I was convinced, would be a piece of kit that would virtually eliminate (or at least push past the threshold of problematic) the jitter bugaboo that virtually everyone spending any time reading up about computer/digital audio is deathly afraid of. Pat ices the cake with his U-Byte BNC coax S/PDIF cable that he has all manner of charts, diagrams and test results about that show all manner of technical superiority over the implementation and design. Pat is very much the evangelist about this part of the design, so don’t take my hand-waving as anything other than what it is; I was sold on the fact that the Legato had BNC, my HiFace didn’t, and I wanted to go adapterless into the Alpha.

A note about that cable. I bought it as part of the unit, and he sold it for $50 off because of it. I mention it here because that damn thing is 5m long (I really ought to have read more before I bought the unit)! A 16′ digital cable for $150 is a steal by audiophile standards, so what’s not to like? Well, all manner of badness happens in long cables (reflection, skin effects, interference, just to name a few) that simply aren’t pertinent to shorter cables, where things like resistance, capacitance and inductance are minimized due to their negligible lengths (my theory on why shorter cables sound better, BTW). So, a 16′ cable? Wha … ??? Isn’t that a problem?!? My emails expressing this concern met with a polite smack to the back of the head (via email), indicating that if I was truly curious, I’d have to read up on it on his site and the various forums. LOL. Touché. Pat says that more info about the cable can be found here:

Anyway, I ordered this thing and almost immediately had cold feet. What was I thinking? I was interested in the Alpha because of high-resolution audio! Wouldn’t getting the Legato pretty much eliminate that as an option — DUH??? So, I wrote him to cancel and simply refund my money. To my chagrin, he’d already shipped it — but he said, quote:

We always take things back if the customer is not happy.

Ok, no problem, I thought. Pat said I have 30 days to get it back to him if I don’t like it, so what’s the harm?

For various reasons, my unit is lacking the final faceplate, so I can’t really comment on the fit and finish of the finalized product. My unit is a silver, sealed box. Metal on 4 sides, with a plastic front which’ll be swapped out when the final plate arrives. Four black plastic footers, two black plastic bands circling the casing — one around the front face plate, one around the back. A BNC connector. An IEC connector. And a Type B USB connector. And that’s all, folks. No diodes. No LEDs. No switches. No dials. Nada. The quintessential black (okay, silver) box. Just plug it in and it works. Right?

Well, yes. It popped right up in the Sound applet in System Preferences. The cable came with a BNC-to-RCA adapter that I was too stupid to figure out how to remove without 5 minutes of fiddling, but then, I’m an idiot.

I plugged everything in, turned on the system, and … magic.

Seriously? Um, no. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already had the misfortune of reading a previous post of mine, and for that experience, I apologize. As you’ll no doubt recall, I’m hardly one to start hyperbolizing, and you’ll be happy to note that I won’t be starting now.

That said, the Legato is very good. Very good indeed.

While I’ve only had it a day now, the unit isn’t broken in (if such is even required) and the cable is brand-spanking new (again, saying this presumes that cable break-in is also a real phenomena, but I’m putting that aside for now). So, draw from that what you may. But what leaped out at me was how clean the bass was. Note that this is precisely what I learned the Alpha did above and beyond the PS Audio — and with the Legato, it was more so.

Let me unpack that a bit so you have some understanding why this is so critical to me. I have a big room, if oddly shaped. It’s 13′ across the listening wall, and 40′ long. In fact, the section of the room, which is a basement, that I sit in is the top-left bar of a capital letter “T”. Let’s call this non-ideal and move on. The challenge for me has never been one of bass boominess or lack of articulation — bass was simply absent. I thought my speakers had “gone bad” or something, or perhaps the amp was limping along on half it’s fuses or something. I bought a couple of Stereophile test-tone CDs and learned two things. One, bass performance drops radically at ~50Hz. Two, this is perfectly normal for human hearing (oops). Okay, so maybe bass was something other than what I had always assumed (we learn something every day, no?), which was probably artificially boosted bass, à la my home theater with it’s monster dual-12″ cone subwoofer (that is some serious bass). I then got over it. I was simply not going to load a room that size with the passive 10″ woofers on those Totems, regardless.

Until I got the Alpha in here, and suddenly, I had some bass. Not HT bass, but there was some punch. Crisp. Clean. Delineated. Natural. Coherent. All that good stuff that you read about.

And then I added the Legato. And everything tightened up more. I think (again, a/b tests have yet to be done, but honestly, I’m having trouble caring, this sound is addictive).

In short, I’m loving this solution.

Before I sign off, a comment about the HiFace. It’s great. And for $150, you can’t shake a stick at it. But, so far, I think the Legato is better. I’ll spend some more time with it to do more a/b testing. Promise.

Another side note about the lack of hi-res support in the Legato. Currently, I have ten files at 176400Hz, twenty-two at 96000Hz, twenty three at 88200Hz, thrity at 48000Hz. 85 high res files. By contrast, I have 3,251 at 44100Hz. I’m guessing that this ratio is similar to many of you. No doubt that hi-res is coming, but for now, my collection is 98% redbook, not including my vinyl collection (~100 albums), so not sure that I’ll notice the lack — for now, at least. While not ideal, all 85 hi-res files play back via the Legato (down sampled and dithered by iTunes, I’m sure), and all sound very good. And those redbook files? Yeah. Well, I think it’s safe to say my system has never sounded this good. More listening is required, yes, and some a/b testing to boot. But in the mean time, I’m having a ball.

Great job, Pat!